Photo credit: Harlan Seymour
"Today or any day that phone may ring and bring good news." -- Ethel Waters, blues, jazz and gospel vocalist
The lab technician inserts the IV into my arm, explaining that the contrast fluid will illuminate suspicious masses for the CT scan. This will show whether or not my tumors have grown or the cancer has spread to any new locations. He cautions that as the solution moves through my system, I will first experience a metallic taste in my mouth, then I will feel a warm sensation as though I am peeing my pants. I've had enough of these tests to know the drill by now, but still I appreciate being reminded of this last bit. It is a sudden, strange feeling and would be alarming were I not prepared.
The technician and nurses leave the room. My body slowly moves through the machine until my chest is inside the doughnut hole, right on target for the scanner. I am told to lie very still. I practice Shavasana, or Corpse Pose.
For the CT scan of my chest, an icon of a little man holding his breath lights up on the screen above my head. A recorded voice advises me to take a deep breath and hold. I fill my lungs with air and watch the digital numbers count down. I don't have great lung capacity, but the test isn't too long and is over before I start to get really concerned that I might pass out. "Breathe now," the voice instructs.
The first scan is a breeze compared to what comes next. For the CT scan of my neck I am given a strict command not to swallow. The instant the nurse tells me not to swallow, swallowing is the very thing my body yearns to do. It is the only thing I can think of. The minute this test is over I am going to do nothing else for the rest of the day but swallow. I salivate as the machine whirrs around me, thinking that surely I am about to swallow and we will have to start the test again. But I make it through and at last the machine stops as I gulp with relief.
My most recent CT scan came back with encouraging results. The tumors in my neck have all but disappeared and the primary tumor in my lung has not grown. We saw no evidence that the cancer has spread to anywhere new. Dr. Adler, Harlan and I all breathed a sigh of relief. The triple play of chemo, radiation and the drug Tarceva seems to be working. I'll stay on the medication for the foreseeable future, in hopes that it will continue to keep the cancer contained.
I'm often asked how to characterize the status of my illness. Dr. Adler says that "remission" means there is no evidence of cancer in my body, and it will be years before we can say this with confidence. For now, we can say that my cancer seems to be contained and we are working to manage it so that it does not grow or spread again.
As for when I might be "cured," an oncologist friend recently told me, "We don't say you're cured until you die of something else."
But who knows? Perhaps the next scan will come back spic-and-span, clean and pristine, showing nothing insidious inside. For this, however, I'm not holding my breath.